Sunday, May 17, 2015

Practical Christian Intercession, Part Two

God our Father,
make us joyful in the ascension of your Son Jesus Christ.
May we follow him into the new creation,
for his ascension is our glory and our hope.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
-- pre-revised prayer for the Feast of the Ascension from the Roman Missal

Dogma and liturgy both exist to teach us how to live. Dogma and liturgy are both, in that sense, maternal. As a young Christian, filled to the gills with catechism and rote prayers and devotional practices, my main longing was for someone to come along and show me how to live Christianity. Not just the "doing" parts, and not just the intellectual explanation parts; I wanted it all understood, done and fleshed-out before my eyes. I wanted to experience Christianity lived.

And I still want that.

In part one of my thoughts on this topic, I pointed out that humans have a tendency toward prayer simply because we are human. Christians need to grasp and contend over this not only because it is true, but because Scripture was penned in an age when philosophical waters over what "human" means were far less muddied. If we cannot understand what it means to be human, we will struggle unnecessarily over grasping Scripture's teaching on what it means to be Christian.

The feast of the Ascension makes it quite clear that to be Christian means to be in Christ. Again, I opened this thought in part one. The entire fourth chapter of Ephesians points out that Christianity is a calling to a life which is a gift. It is received by a Christian (by faith and through sacraments and union with the Body of Christ), and it is in fact Christ's own life, present, living, active and growing in us.

What does this then mean for intercession? What is prayer? How do we live it? What does it look like?

Some say that it amounts to lots and lots of words said. Lots of prayer books, lots of devotions read. Rosaries, novenas, chaplets prayed. People know they've prayed a lot because the clock ticked forward significantly since they sat down to their words.

Others say that their work is their prayer. At some point in their lives, they offered their work to God and then busied themselves with that. When they get weary, they remind themselves that there's some greater purpose in what they are doing.

Others will say their love is their prayer. They are concerned about lots of people and they keep track of how they are and do things to help them when they can.

Others might say they simply are vaguely aware of God surrounding them and keeping them alive, and nothing they do can match that wonder. And so, for them, prayer is simply beholding wonder.

Now, what I'm going to say is that none of these is Christian prayer in completeness, because all of these can be lived selfishly. We all have our natural human tendencies which -- I must hasten to add -- are good! Because prayer is rooted in our humanity, there are different ways of it and different disciplines which fit us. But the key to these disciplines is one thing: love.

And God is love. We think we are love, but we are not. Go back to St. Paul in Ephesians. We need to grow up into love, and we do this by living in the messy pain of community. This means that real love serves real human beings in their real needs. Love means allowing the new creation, God's life, heaven, to be expressed through our humanity. It means that our death (to self) brings (God's) life to the souls of others.

And this gets closer to the heart of what intercession is. But I'll have to go for part three.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Practical Christian Intercession, Part One

It doesn't take a deeply religious person to offer to say a prayer for someone. It is a common response to hearing of a tragedy, sudden need or a deep concern. One recent survey found that even 12% of atheists reported that they pray. So in one regard, prayer is simply a human expression. It is by no means exclusively Christian.

Intercessory prayer, or prayer of one on behalf of another, does have a uniquely Christian meaning, however. It is not opposed to this natural desire for well-being of others that we experience, but it raises it up and supernaturalizes it.

And this is due to the fact that Jesus Himself is our intercessor before the Father. Hebrews 7:25 tells us that Jesus is "able to save those who approach God through Him, since He lives forever to make intercession for them."

Think about this for a moment. Jesus paid the full price of our redemption with His passion, death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. But now, what -- in order for us to "really" be saved, He has to be in heaven saying prayers constantly for all eternity for us? Is that what "making intercession" is all about?

Not exactly. In heaven, He reigns. As victor over sin and death, it is His very presence, the fact of His completed act of redemption, His unending life, that is the eternal offering that speaks for us.

This completed act of redemption has opened the gates of heaven, for all who believe. Those who believe are incorporated into Christ by the sacraments of initiation. In baptism, God gives us a complete package of transforming grace. Our life is then a process in which we are meant to open, receive, use and develop the graces He has given us. We all receive equal graces to become saints, but we do all receive graces that are unique to our own vocation. All the gifts and graces work together, though, so that we come "to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the fully stature of Christ" (Eph. 4:13). To be Christian is to be in community, to belong to other believers, living in real-time with them in truth and love:

We must no longer be children . . . But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love. (Eph. 4:14-16)

So essentially the difference between a Christian life and a human religious life is this matter of living, growing, and maturing into Christ, in union with His body, the Church.

And this has implications for uniquely Christian intercession, as well. I'll develop that further in part two.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Divine Intimacy, and a Carmelite story

Today, I cracked open my belated Christmas gift just recently in at the used book store for me:

It was quite a moment.

It look me back to another moment roughly 24 years ago, when I cracked open this book, by the same author:

That little green book ended up in my hands because I had mustered up all of my courage to speak to my friend Keith who had joined up with them Catholics and had become a sight hard for me to behold at our weekly home fellowship meetings. Because I had to struggle to find something to say to him other than hurling accusations of apostasy his way, I came up with the best thing I could think of. I reached back into the memory of a paper I wrote in college for which I researched mysticism and had discovered St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. (It was a hefty part of my grade I had to defend, and in answer to my frantic prayer for a topic I distinctly heard the Lord answer me: Mysticism. With true gratitude I told Him in response, Great! But, what's mysticism? Today that little exchange makes me laugh out loud, at least if I'm only telling it to myself.)

Back to the first story. Keith assured me that yes, there were people who still believed like Teresa and John did, and in fact they had a monastery about 35 miles out of town. The next time I saw him, he handed me this little booklet which he'd bought for me there.

I wasn't much keen on anything Catholic at the time, but somehow those Carmelites had held me fascinated yet again. I read the little book, which basically is an introduction to mental prayer in the Carmelite tradition. Right away I realized I wanted to practice this. It was the beginning of a whole array of confusing delights as my intellect and heart inched toward the Catholic Church.

I thought of all that as I read (the completely wrong) entry for today from Divine Intimacy. It is set up on the old liturgical calendar, and so I misunderstood how it was counting the weeks of Easter and so read the selection intended for next Wednesday. But as I read it, I got that sense of spiritual heartburn, the kind that makes you want to cry when something fits everything so well. The meditation was on Mary as the grandest exemplar of spiritual poverty, of knowing oneself to be nothing. I thought of how I have been introduced to living this beatitude. I thought of how X number of years ago, I not only would not have grasped this as a spiritual principle, but probably would have argued against it. I thought of how I never, ever would have been able to design my own path towards this spiritual truth and actually walked the path. I thought of how hard I fought God when, I realize now, He wanted me to embrace the Christian, spiritual meaning of saying "I am nothing." I thought of how all my life God has called me to Carmel, and I am finally able to at least say I'm on the same page, and I see where He points. Theoretically, it is much easier to say "yes" to walking on a path that has actual definition.

Or, it's harder.

Because I understand, even though I really don't.

But really, it is a magnificent journey as long as I keep looking with awe at God, all He does, and all He gives, and learn how to live accordingly.